By: Peter Schorsch
Florida is a tourist destination with all the trappings. Theme parks. Springs. Beaches. And, of course, plenty of golf courses.
Too many, in fact.
The Sunshine State is home to about 1,250 golf courses, more than any other state and nearly 10 percent of all links in the country.
But golf isn’t the chic sport it used to be. Gone are the days of Tiger Woods winning majors left and right — his most recent jacket is the exception that proves the rule.
That era saw millions of new players take their first swings. Back in 2002, coincidentally the year Tiger won his third Masters, Pellucid Corp. data shows there were 30 million frequent golfers in the US.
Additionally, there were nearly 5,000 golf courses built in the US between 1986 and 2005. Simply put, the hype around golf was strong.
Fast forward to 2018 there are fewer than 21 million regular players — a drop of more than 30 percent from a decade ago — and the sport’s recedence back to spectatordom has left the nation with a massive surplus of golf courses.
In 2016, the most recent year with available data, the National Golf Foundation reports 211 courses were permanently closed and just 15 new courses opened nationwide.
And just as Florida holds the top spot in course inventory, it’s leading the way in closings.
Even with more than 120 million visitors a year, there simply aren’t enough players paying greens fees to sustain multiple courses in every suburb and exurb from Pensacola to Palm Beach.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Pinellas County.
At 3,427 per square mile, it’s the state’s most densely populated county by several strokes — that’s more than double Broward, the No. 2 county in population density.
But there are also 39 golf courses in Pinellas taking up 4,800 acres of land that’s increasingly needed to house residents and keep them from living in food deserts.
It doesn’t take a keen eye notice Pinellas’ course stock has dipped in the past few years.
Cheval in Lutz is in bankruptcy. Pinellas County closed Airco in Clearwater in 2011. The Plantation Palms in Land O’ Lakes met the same fate in 2014. The Tides in Clearwater followed a year later.
In many cases, the lack of upkeep at these sinking and shuttered courses has transformed them from glamorous greenspaces to overgrown eyesores.
Despite trends showing the golf market heading toward a cliff, residents whose houses abut courses don’t want change.
They bought their homes expecting to have a pristine from their back porch for the rest of their lives. But without cash flow at the clubhouse, they’ll quickly be looking out a swampy mess.
That’s what happened with The Tides’ closure.
Residents didn’t give development plans the time of day, saying they couldn’t bare it if the course was replaced with a new development. They got their wish, and now they’re watching scrub brush take over The Tides through a chain-link fence.
Airco, however, was approved for redevelopment and is an important piece to the future expansion of St. Pete/Clearwater Airport.
Residents surrounding the Bardmoor would do well to learn from what happened to The Tides.
The desire block development and keep the course has brought in angry crowds and caused one-sided shouting matches. And while it’s true the Bardmoor has better attendance numbers than many courses right now, it’s not immune to the nationwide trend.
The course will almost certainly close, and the 150 acres it’s sitting on will either be developed or derelict.